Events in Newtown, Connecticut, have put gun control and related topics at the top of the list for pundits, opinion columnists and Internet blog commenters. I am always hesitant to wade in too soon on such topics. It’s my tendency to go into “information gathering mode” before I start spouting off. I have been absorbing and researching and pondering for a while now, so I thought I would switch to my “spouting off” mode.
What can be said about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that hasn’t already been said? One would typically have to go to a “holy” text to find such examples of horrific violence meted out upon the most innocent among us. At least the great human crimes of Attila the Hun*, Mao, Hitler and Stalin had [in their own minds] an enemy or obstacle to justify their actions. But 6-year-old kids?!?! These are people that are still dreaming about being a fireman or a basketball star and who spill over with pride when they color without going outside the lines. These victims were all aspiration and zero malice. (*Atrocity Trivia: By percentage of the world population killed, Atilla the Hun is the hands down “winner.” All done with first-century weapons and transport!)
Of course the topic of mental health comes up. What surprised me is that there are some that are hesitant to label the shooter “insane” or “mentally ill." I am not a psychologist, and I understand that there is uncertainty and ambiguity in diagnosing mental health, but I think we can read the targeted killing of innocent children as being, irrefutably, in the “mentally ill” slot. That said; there will always be the likes of Adam Lanza and there will always be senseless violence. Some have suggested getting more aggressive in identifying those that might be psychologically frail and denying them access to guns. The problem here is that, to “catch” the possible offenders in a numerically useful way, the bar would be set so high that very few of us would pass muster. The rate of “false positives” would be intolerable.
Gun control, though, is usually the first thing that rolls off people’s lips. This pits the Second Amendment against everyone’s desire to keep our kids (and society generally) safe from gun violence. On one hand, we have the clear examples of countries with comparatively Draconian gun controls having far less gun crime. On the other hand, we have the Constitutional protection of the Second Amendment allowing private citizens to own firearms. The latter has been a contentious issue for some time and there is/was ambiguity in the text of the amendment. Was that right there to support our federal government to be able to assemble a ready fighting force to repel a foreign aggressor? Was that right there so that the citizenry could defend itself against our own government run amok? (Remember, it was by no means certain that our experiment in democracy would be stable and successful for the long term). I think there are passable arguments on both sides...though, for original intent, I lean toward “supporting the federal government”.
That aspect of the Second Amendment has been laid to rest though. As I often say; “The Constitution is only what the Supreme Court says it is.” In 2008, the supreme court ruled that gun ownership rights go beyond the need for the government to quickly assemble an army. Some amongst us may not be happy with that interpretation but, in a sense, we really can’t argue with that. The SCOTUS done spoke!
So...how do we maintain Constitutional rights and minimize the risk of gun violence for our kids and society generally? Like many issues, this is complex. Like too many issues, some factions like to claim that there are simple solutions...if that simple solution comports with their ideology or their pet interest. Everyone, by now, is aware of the NRA contention that the problem of too many guns can be fixed by even more guns. If we look at events like Newtown in history, that contention doesn’t really hold up (never mind the evidence that strict gun controls reduce net gun violence). More importantly; why would we care what such an obviously biased actor in this debate has to say? The NRA’s contention is well refuted by my nephew: “I can only assume the World Clown Association thinks school shootings can be prevented with more clowns in schools.” As soon as I heard the NRA statement I recalled how, when I see foreign news footage with armed guards/military everywhere, I think “I am sure glad I don’t live there!”.
Really...we can analyze the evidence on gun control and parse Constitutional rights just fine without the input of the NRA, thank you.
What is a society to do? We know how to reduce gun violence based on the examples of other countries. Fewer guns mean fewer gun deaths. Unfortunately we have the pesky Constitution thingy that...rightly...gets waved around.
Can we just keeps guns out of the hands of the bad guys or the mentally ill? I doubt it. As I mentioned earlier; the bar would have to be set so low to make an appreciable difference that very few people would qualify to purchase a firearm. Plus, we are probably all aware that the weapons used in Newtown, Connecticut were legally acquired and registered by his mother.
What if we ban assault weapons? First we would have to define an assault weapon...and that is harder than it sounds. Is it just scary-looking rifles? There are handguns that hold upwards of 17 rounds that can probably inflict more carnage than some of those assault rifles. It’s all physics. Guns are about converting chemical energy (gunpowder) into kinetic energy (a flying bullet) and then transferring that energy to a target (let’s say a tin can on a fencepost).
I would suggest that there is a compromise that will not satisfy either camp...so it’s probably pretty good. What if we somehow put a cap on the killing power of weapons that are publicly available. Let’s have every firearm ranked in terms of its ability to unleash death and destruction. I’ll call it the “Death and Destruction Rating” (or DDR). The open-ended DDR would be determined by analyzing the following:
- How many rounds can be fired in a set period of time (i.e. 30 seconds) as determined by an independent testing agency.
- The size and mass of the projectile
- The charge size (how much “gunpowder” is in each round)
- The useful range
- Physical size / ease of concealment
Somehow those factors would be distilled into a single number that would generally correlate with how many people it could kill in given period of time. With the DDR, you could have a rifle that could take down a buck at 1000 feet, but you might not be able to get off a round or two before you were forced to pause through some design feature.
I don’t think we can realistically change the Constitution on this matter (nor would would I necessarily want to). Nor do I don’t think we can write off the high level of U.S. gun violence as the “price of freedom”. Compromise is pretty foreign in today’s politics, but if events like Sandy Hook can’t get us to think about it, then we are in a pretty bad place.